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African Americans in the
Civilian Conservation Corps

Black CCC Member in Barracks Doorway
Black CCC Member in Barracks Doorway
Documents


Introduction

The Emergency Conservation Work Act establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps was signed into law by President Roosevelt on March 31, 1933. Under the direction of Robert Fechner, the CCC employed young men between the ages of 17 and 23 in work camps where they were assigned to various conservation projects. Enrollees were paid thirty dollars a month, twenty-five dollars of which was sent home to the enrollee's families. From 1933 to 1942, over three million young men enrolled in the CCC, including 250,000 African Americans who were enrolled in nearly 150 all-black CCC companies.

As with all Civilian Conservation Corps members, black CCC enrollees contributed to the protection, conservation and development of the country's environmental resources. Enrollees planted trees, fought fires, and took part in pest eradication projects. They built and improved park and recreation areas, constructed roads, built lookout towers, and strung telephone and electric wires. Money sent home by CCC enrollees assisted families hard-hit by the depression. CCC camps provided enrollees with educational, recreational and job training opportunities.

African American CCC members performed their duties in a society divided by race, and often in the presence of officially sanctioned racism. Black membership in the CCC was set at ten percent of the overall membership—roughly proportional to the percentage of African Americans in the national population. However, because the economic conditions of blacks were disproportionately worse than those of whites, this race-based quota system did not adequately address the relief needs of African American youth. When the CCC began, few efforts were made to actively recruit African Americans. Many states, particularly in the South, passed over qualified black applicants to enroll whites. Black CCC enrollees routinely faced hostile local communities, endured the racist attitudes of individual CCC, Army and Forest Service supervisors, and found limited opportunities for assuming leadership positions within the CCC's administrative structure. This inhospitable environment was aided by the absence of a sustained commitment on the part of the Roosevelt Administration to end racist practices within the CCC.

In the early years of the CCC some camps were integrated, but prompted by local complaints and the views of the US Army and CCC administrators, integrated CCC camps were disbanded in July, 1935, when CCC Director Robert Fechner issued a directive ordering the "complete segregation of colored and white enrollees." While the law establishing the CCC contained a clause outlawing discrimination based upon race; the CCC held that "segregation is not discrimination" (see Fechner's letter to NAACP leader Thomas Griffith). Although the CCC's Jim Crow policy prompted complaints from black and white civil rights activists, segregation remained the rule throughout the life of the CCC.

The following documents, selected by Michael Hoak, a doctoral candidate in American History at William and Mary College, give some sense of the issues confronting black CCC enrollees, as well as the conflict over segregation among members of the Roosevelt administration. Mr. Hoak is currently writing his dissertation on this topic. For a recent work focusing on the history and experiences of blacks in the California CCC camps see Olen Cole Jr.'s African Americans in the Civilian Conservation Corps (University Press of Florida, 1999).

—Project Director, New Deal Network



Documents

DocumentsDescription
PhotographsA collection of sixteen photographs from the archives of the Civilian Conservation Corps(National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 35)
CCC Youth Refuses to Fan Flies off Officer

"CCC Youth Refuses to Fan Flies off Officer; is Fired." Norfolk Journal and Guide, 13 January 1934: 7.

This article is an example of how one white officer abused his power, and how the NAACP became involved in the matter.
A Negro in the CCC

Wandall, Luther. "A Negro in the CCC." Crisis 42 (August 1935): 244, 253-254.

Wandall's piece is an interesting first hand account of his own experience in the program. Although he fails to mention it specifically, the camp in which he served was NM-4 at the Colonial National Monument (now Historical Park) in Yorktown, Virginia.
Harold Ickes to Robert Fechner
Image
Harold Ickes to Robert Fechner, 20 September 1935, "CCC Negro Foremen" file, Box 70O, General Correspondence of the Director, Record Group 35, National Archives, College Park, Maryland.
Ickes attacks the CCC's policy excluding black supervisors, and makes a rather powerful argument for inclusion. This piece is unique because it illustrates the widely diverging opinions of two prominent members of the Roosevelt administration.
Robert Fechner to Thomas L. Griffith

Robert Fechner to Thomas L. Griffith, 21 September 1935, "CCC Negro Selection" file, BOX 700, General Correspondence of the Director, Record Group 35, National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

Fechner explains the CCC's decision to enforce segregation to Thomas L. Griffith, the chairman of the NAACP in California.
FDR to Robert Fechner
Image
FDR to Robert Fechner, 27 September 1935, "CCC Negro Foremen" file, Box 700, General Correspondence of the Director, Record Group 35, National Archives, College Park, Maryland
A handwritten letter from Roosevelt that a token number of black supervisors be appointed in CCC camps located on National Park Service property. Roosevelt penned the letter shortly before leaving Washington for a brief vacation in Warm Springs. Fechner sat on it while Roosevelt was away, and warned Harry Byrd and Carter Glass, which led to a vocal uproar from several southern congressmen. On his return Roosevelt decided to rescind the order.
Robert Fechner to Robert J. Buckley

Robert Fechner to Robert J. Buckley, 4 June 1936, "CCC Negro Selection" file, Box 700, General Correspondence of the Director, Record Group 35, National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

Fechner talks about local resistance to black camps and the CCC's unwillingness to force black camps on dissenting communities.
The CCC and Colored Youth

Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC and Colored Youth. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Offices, 1941.

This pamphlet was written by Edgar Brown, the CCC's advisor on racial affairs. Brown distributed this short booklet to local relief agents in order to generate higher black enrollment. By 1941, many white enrollees left the program to pursue employment in the booming defense industry. The CCC tried to fill their places by embracing, for the very first time, an increase in black enrollment figures.


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